Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Gifts of Nature

The idea of Nature is essential to Ralph Waldo Emerson. And throughout his lifetime he created a beautiful and poetic appreciation of the relationship between humankind and nature. As he states “our intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of (our) daily food.” This constant interaction with Nature is for Emerson the engine that drives all of creation. In Emerson’s first book, Nature, I have found penetrating insights that would grow to become the foundation of his work.

He starts his book by stating that the gifts that nature gives to humanity come in four different forms: commodity, beauty, language and discipline. By examining these gifts we get a sense of Emerson’s mystical understanding of the holistic and evolutionary nature of nature.

The first gift of nature is commodity. Nature is the source of all of the nurturance that allows for our physical existence. To Emerson all of nature is one magnificent effort conspiring to provide for our continued existence.

“Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man.”

Love of beauty is the second of nature’s gifts. It is our constant interaction with the beauty of nature that teaches us to be able to recognize that which is beautiful. The beautiful for Emerson exists not in the elements of nature, but in the perfect harmonious union of these parts. At a still higher level of beauty human will when it becomes perfectly aligned with nature by acting in accordance with her law teaches us to recognize how human action can be made noble and beautiful. And at still a higher level our own minds when filled with thoughts attuned to nature’s current become a thing of beauty.

Language is the third gift of nature and it is here that I begin to see the ideas in Emerson’s early thought that will be expanded upon by the Pragmatists Peirce, James and Dewey and provide part of the intellectual foundation upon which today’s Integral Theory will be built.

Language, and Emerson includes thought as a form of internal language, is also the product of our interaction with nature. Language develops from the naming of natural facts. The earliest words are nouns that act as pointers toward objects. Through time our language gets more abstract, but it was given birth from and remains forever anchored to the natural world. In this way language to Emerson is not an intellectual overlay upon the natural world it grew directly out of the natural world through human interaction and extension of natural facts into a mental and spoken domain.

Imagine you are a nonverbal hunter and you see a lion running toward your village. You cannot out run the lion to warn your tribe, but if you developed a sound that your tribe would recognize as the signal that a lion was coming you could shout the sound and warn the village well ahead of the lion’s arrival. As I read Emerson he is seeing language as developing out of human interaction with nature and necessity in ways that might have looked like this.

Emerson goes on in his discussion of language to express a thought that is absolutely essential to his thinking – that nature is a mirror of the human mind and spirit. Our language and mind grew out of nature and is a reflection of nature. Emerson is an idealist which means that he sees that there is a universal mind that we are all connected to. “Words are finite organs of the infinite mind.” He states in Nature. That infinite mind has grown out of the cumulative interaction between humanity and nature throughout history and it contains our most fundamental shared understanding.

“Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine. This universal soul, he calls Reason: it is not mine, or thine, or his, but we are its; we are its property and men. And the blue sky in which the private earth is buried, the sky with its eternal calm, and full of everlasting orbs, is the type of Reason.”

The last gift of nature is discipline and in it again we see the magnificence of how Emerson views the world as a process of interaction between humanity and nature. Nature disciplines us. It teaches us how to act. We are like children upon this earth and nature provides us with the limits and lessons through which we can learn how to act in perfect union with her. In this way we come to realize the “unity in variety” which is the essence of nature and the essence of humanity as a part of nature.

Emerson is an American Romantic and his vision of the universe is as a living process of growth. On this earth nature developed and grew biologically created a tremendous variety and diversity of life that incessantly work to provide the physical and spiritual atmosphere in which humanity can thrive. And as we interact with the nature that created and sustains us we grow and as an extension of nature, nature grows with us. Although Emerson’s evolutionary spirituality will develop in sophistication over his lifetime, the seeds of that spiritual view can be found right here in his very first book.